Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Big Problem With “The Essay On Man”: Misinterpretation

A couple of weeks ago I got so upset at Alexander Pope’s Essay On Man that we ended up having a big fight. I filled up the margins of the book with lines from Perelandra to console myself and really got a rant out. He didn’t get to respond to me – and so that made it easier :).

Actually, that is an exaggeration - I want to be fair to this great poet, who does, I think, have great talent and probably wrote the Essay on Man out of the best intentions. However, I do think it is important that we question the “greats,” – NOT because they are great but because they are human. The authors of the “classics” are often regarded as incredibly wise and thinking people but this is not always the case, and – as long as we do it humbly – I think it’s crucial that we remember to question them. They are not any less “human” than the rest of us and just as prone to mistakes. Although, of course, this isn’t to say that I don’t think we should admire authors for the wisdom that they display in their writings, I do believe that we shouldn’t idolize them or assume that they will always be right. That said, the lines that I particularly had troubles with were these:

“All Nature is but Art unknown to thee;
All chance direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil universal good;
And spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite
One truth is clear – whatever is, is right.”

Now, of course, one cannot take Pope seriously here. He surely cannot mean, “Whatever is, is right.” It would be unjust to accuse him of that kind of simple-mindedness – as though he didn’t know about evil = slavery, suicide, addictions, sadism, cruelty, prostitution, oppression, castes, murder, love-of-money, etc….. He knew. So what was he trying to say? This is where the heart of the problem lies, and in reading the poem, one might almost say that he actually believed it was all “destined” to be in order to fulfill a greater good.

Dorothy Sayers (in The Mind Of The Maker*see end note) says, “The fact, however, that ‘all activity is of God’ means that no creative Idea can be wholly destructive: some creation will be produced together with the destruction; and it is the work of the creative mind to see that the destruction is redeemed by it’s creative elements.” Perhaps this thought is what Pope was attempting to express up there, but I guess the root question, the part that Pope didn’t explain very well, is this, “Because the evil was turned to good, was it then, ‘prepared’ that way?” Here is what C.S. Lewis says about that, “Whatever you do, He will make good out of it. But not the good He had prepared for you if you had obeyed Him. That is lost forever. The first King and the first Mother of our world did the forbidden thing; and He brought good of it in the end. But what they did was not good; and what they lost we have not seen. And there were some to whom no good came nor ever will.”

So I guess the answer is no. It was “prepared” to be beautiful, if we had obeyed Him. There was supposed to be no brokenness. And there is. But he made good out of it, and good was “Redemption.” Obviously He knew that we were going to disobey and there was going to be a Fall. But He had something else for us, and, as Aslan says, “No one is ever told what would have happened.” Perhaps the best line I know of on this subject is from "The Last Samurai." Those of you who have seen this movie will remember the part where Captain Algren is talking with Katsumoto and attempting to persuade him not to give up and to keep fighting against the odds, even though it will almost certainly mean defeat. Katsumoto says to him, “Do you believe a man can change his destiny?” and Algren answers, “I believe a man does what he can until his destiny is revealed to him.”

Well, that’s all I have to say on this subject, although I suppose you can see that everything smart in my post was not my own idea but quoted from one of the “greats” :) Oh, and if you disagree, do offer me your alternate opinion – I realize that this is a hard subject and I am totally open to other ideas.

Seize The Day!

*By the way, this book is pretty tough for me and requires my full attention. It is also full of metaphorical language and I would suggest being really careful in quoting from it, as certain passages could easily be misunderstood without the full context. I hope I have quoted her fairly and clearly, without muddling her intended message.

Edit: When I titled the post "The Big Problem With 'The Essay On Man': Misinterpretation," I didn't nessecarily mean that Pope had misinterpreted anything. I just meant that I thought his work was easy to misinterpret.


Wings over Earth said...

I think Pope is saying that whatever situation people find themselves; is the place that's best suited for them - if they had an understanding of God's grand scheme of things. However, Pope suggests that we are currently limited in our understanding, so we don't really see God’s big picture.

In other words, Pope clearly accepts everything happens for a reason. We may not comprehend why, we may not see the reason behind it, but we are to trust that God is at work behind everything and that everything happens as part of an ultimate good. "Whatever IS, is RIGHT."

This debate is nothing new. Centuries of theologians, philosophers, and poets have argued over whether or not our lives are predetermined or if we are governed by free will. And the jury is still out. Some people agree with Pope “everything is part of God's plan”.

Maybe it is both? Maybe God loves us so much that God gave us the freedom to choose: to choose life or to choose death, to choose to live in a covenantal relationship with God and one another or to reject all that is sacred and life-giving. Thankfully, God does not leave us fully to our desires. God is there to direct, to sustain, and to correct in ways our finite intellect cannot possibly understand. But maybe it isn't for us to understand. Maybe it is for us to do the best that we can with what we have been given and trust that God will carry the rest. Maybe it is both. "Maybe both is happening at the same time."

Pope was a Catholic, a despised minority in the England of his day. He was prohibited from attending a university or from holding certain public offices. Why would he argue that the existing political structure was "right"?

Pope was four feet, six inches tall. He was a hunchback, and his health was quite poor. Why might he argue that his condition was for the best?

Pope was the first English writer to make a living completely by his publications. What might this have to do with his writing a poem that supported a conservative and repressive political establishment?

Pope's assessment depends on the idea of the “Great Chain of Being”. This ‘term’ originated in classical times, became popular again in the Age of Enlightenment, and influenced Western thought during the Age of Enlightenment. The three general aspects of the universe that the “Chain of Being” emphasized were; plenitude, continuity, and gradation.

Plenitude: the universe exhibits maximum diversity; everything that is possible is.

Continuity: Each creation in the universe shares with its neighbour at least one attributes.

Gradation: There is a hierarchical order moving from the most insignificant creature the highest order of creation, God.

Pope believes that essential assumed order of the universe means that man should accept his lot without complaint: WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT!


Thanks StrongJoy for making me think about ‘such things’. I enjoy your blog writings and thoughts!

Doug P. Baker said...

Dear StrongJoy,

This is an excellent article, and you did an awesome job of bringing three brilliant giants into conversation. I am especially pleased to see Sayers allowed to speak in this conversation. But to some extent I think that they are speaking with slightly different points of reference than each other.

And Peter, your response was excellent and wise! I'll refer to it a little later.

First, consider the point which Paul laid out in Romans: All things work together for good for those who love God, who have been called according to their purpose. None of the three would disagree with that, nor do I think either of you do. Absolutely all things, whether they seem good or bad to us here and now, are being woven into a tapestry that viewed from eternity will be seen to be beautiful.

Without exception, all things are ultimately (from the perfect vantage point of the Creator) seen to be working for God's glory and our good.

For Lewis the question is who this "our" is. To Paul it is not every human life on earth. It is a very limited "our." It is only those who love God and have been called by him. Very limited.

That is what Lewis was pointing at by saying that "there are some to whom no good came, nor ever will." Not all are within Paul's reckoning nor within the receivers of God's good will. There are some for whom all things do not work together for good.

Pope was not thinking from quite that perspective, although he would not (I think) have disagreed with it. He was not taking the bird's eye view of history as Lewis was. He was saying, as Peter pointed out, that we are placed individually into our proper role, the role from which we can and should work, understand, love, worship, and humbly serve our God. The key, to Pope was this idea of being humble in our acceptance of the role into which we are placed.

A few lines before your quote Pope says:

"Know thy own point: this kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heav'n bestows on thee.

And then just after your quote he says:

"Know then thyself, presume not God to scan:
The proper study of mankind is man."

Peter was right that he is seeing us in this great chain-of-being that reaches from God at its height, down through kings, to leaders, teachers, workers, illiterate masses and down into the animals and even inanimate objects. All that exists belongs somewhere along this chain of being. And Pope was saying that your place is appointed. Your vision is much more limited the lower you belong on this chain, but that is no matter for the individual to buck against. Whatever is, is right.

He is not, I think, taking blame away from slavers, holders of prostitutes, etc. Blame belongs where it belongs.

Yet, even the slave, the one unwillingly held in prostitution, etc., must understand that there is a 'direction,' a 'harmony,' an 'art' even to their existence. We, none of us, can really see it yet: Not the king, not the worm. Yet we are placed where we are, yes sometimes by evil me-but at the same time, by a loving God who is not resting.

He is not asking us to set aside proper blame from evil deeds and evil people. He is asking us to recognize that even hardship, hunger and evil are ultimately in the hands of the artist whose poem we are. As John Gerstner said, "He may be the devil, but he's God's devil." Even evil will one day be seen to work for the glory of God.

My "due degree of blindness" is not given as an excuse for dissatisfaction or unholiness, but as a cause for humility under God's providence.

Dorothy Sayers, meanwhile, is speaking in The Mind Of The Maker about human beings reflecting God's Image by joining with him in his work of creating/making. Thus, she is not so much speaking of God's creation (from nothing he brings something) but of human creation (from something altered/destroyed we bring something new). The creative human impulse is to modify what we find into more exciting/beautiful/meaningful forms. She draws this mostly from God's original creative work, but also partly from his redemptive/providential work by which he took what was unholy and re-created it pure and lovely. So she provides a metaphor (our creative efforts-->God's Creation) for a metaphor (God's Creation-->our creative efforts). And if our creation is to be valid, according to her, it must likewise leave more than it finds. So she is playing with the assumptions that underlie the quotes that you give from Pope and Lewis.

I know I'm dreadfully longwinded. Sorry. But I don't think the three are in much disagreement on this point although they may think they are. They are looking at similar questions from slightly different questions. Pope is the hardest to understand, but I think with a sufficient attention to context (especially the context of his assumption of a chain-of-being which Peter pointed out) it is possible to not get too angry with him at this point.

At the very least, he is not saying "sin is not sin" or "evil is not evil." He is saying submit humbly under God's authority.

All that I have said is merely my opinion; it is how I have understood these four whom I take to be four pillars of my faith. They disagree about a lot, but not, I think, irreconcilably.

I may be wrong at all points.

Everly Pleasant said...

I always enjoy your posts!
I am unfamiliar with "An Essay on Man" so I will refrain from voicing any premature opinions, but I wanted to tell you that agree with what you said about "the greats."
Just because you've decided that you agree with one of their books, doesn't mean you can trust their every word. And though your post was made up of mostly quotations, it was very good. Intelligence is often shown through your comprehension (clearly expressed through your ability to link all of these writings together so thought-provokingly) not necessarily through creating your own ideas/theories.
Three cheers for you,

Lucie said...


I must say that that post is very thought-provoking.

You are SO right to call attention to that fact that we need to be ready to question the "greats," and not just "drink the kool-aid."

I was read in my science book about how spontaneous generation was accepted for 2,000 years solely because it's maker, Aristotle, was so widely respected for his many correct ideas. We should "be bereans" in all things-- including the ideas of our age. Thanks for addressing this subject!

Anne said...

Dear Strongjoy-

I shan't say too much because those comments at the top are a little above my head for this late at night, but I love to read your 'big' thoughts. They really do make me think, which is a good thing. You should keep up your writing; you have a good way of expressing yourself. Now I could just go on to say what Everly and Lucie said, but that would be repetetive, so I won't :)


Lucie said...

Hi, Strongjoy! I saw that you have some Oscar Wilde quotes and I was wondering if you had read Dorian Gray. I was thinking about reading it and wondered if there was anything objectionable about it. Thanks.

Lucie (Lucie Land)

StrongJoy said...

Wings Over Earth and Mr. Baker,

Thank you for your insightful comments on my post! I do so appreciate that you would take the time to give me your opinions on this subject. I realize that no one has all the right answers and I hope I don't sound authoritative in voicing my opinions.

By the way, When I titled my post, "The Big Problem With 'An Essay On Man: Misinterpretation,'" I was trying to imply that Pope is easy to misinterpret, not that he had necessarily misinterpreted anything. I hope that didn't cause any confusion - I guess I should have made that clearer so as not to be misinterpreted myself:) Anyway, thanks a lot, and blessings!

Seize The Day!

Rising from my Ashes said...

On the point that we may not have the right answers - I have the same experience with excellent poems and believe that nobody could ever say all that needs to be said about them. And books too...each time I re-read a book, a new view is formed.